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Brexit: yes or no for Britain’s scientists?

June 16 2016

The countdown has begun. Next Thursday (June 23) British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens will go vote on one of the most important European issues of the year. The EU referendum will decide Britain’s future inside (or outside) Europe. The latest opinion polls point towards Brexit with only a slight majority. However, most of Britain’s scientists are speaking out in favour of the European Union. Why is that?

A recent survey in Nature showed that 90% of scientists would like Britain to stay in Europe. Therefore, it is not surprising that last week a group of 13 Nobel prize-winning scientists (including Peter Higgs of the Higgs boson) spoke against Brexit. They are joined by more than 150 fellows of the Royal Society, the UK’s premier scientific institution, in arguing that a Brexit would be a ‘disaster for UK science’.

UK science is competing in a global market for research funding, academics and students and is performing extremely well. UK-based scientists are highly productive, they produce almost 16% of the world’s most cited research papers with 4% of the scientists. They have taken home the lion share of EU funding. While the UK only contributes 12% to the total EU budget, since the start of Horizon 2020 in 2014 (with nearly €80 billion available until 2020) approximately 16% went to UK-based researchers. In Framework 7 (the predecessor of Horizon 2020, which ran from 2007-2013) the UK acquired most of the prestigious grants, with a total value of almost €7 billion. 23% of all European Research Council (ERC) funding goes to British universities. Losing the EU membership would also mean losing these funding privileges and less opportunities to collaborate and form partnerships within Europe. Furthermore, most scientists are afraid that limited funding possibilities, restricted circulation and increased tuition fees will make the UK a less attractive place for foreign talents to study and do science. 

In contrast, the campaign group Scientists for Britain and other parties are convinced that UK science will not suffer from Brexit, given the fact that non-EU countries are currently participating in EU funding schemes. It points to nations like Switzerland and Israel, who have access to EU research schemes through an ‘Associated Member’ status. Brexiteers even claim that EU regulation has significantly impeded research and that the EU funding system is excessively bureaucratic and compromised by political objectives. Furthermore, they feel that Brexit would enable Britain’s scientists to focus more on international collaboration, while reduced spending on the EU might even increase the UK budget for science.

This discussion is not an easy one. At ttopstart we are closely following the developments and are curious what will happen to British scientists, and our British clients, if Brexit becomes reality. Can the UK government replace EU support with national funding? Will Horizon 2020 programmes be re-opened for UK participation and when? Will Britain be able to (re-)establish itself as a global powerhouse without EU restrictions?

What is your opinion on this? Should Britain stay or go? Visit our LinkedIn page to join the discussion.


References and further reading:

Financial Times, June 2016
BBC News, June 2016
The Telegraph, June 2016
Prospect Magazine, May 2016
The Guardian, April 2016
Nature News, March 2016
The Guardian, August 2015

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Karlijn Bastiaansen, PhD